The Green Plate: Dare to Eat an Oyster

ColumnAre oysters cruelty free? That’s up to you.

There are few things more guaranteed to spark controversy than a discussion about personal dietary choices. You want to get people riled up? Start making a case for or against pretty much any dietary regimen.

It seems that nobody likes to be told what to eat, while lots of people feel entitled to tell others what to eat. Doesn’t matter if we’re talking about high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors, meat, or oysters; the same people who will hang onto their own arguments with the tenacity of a barnacle are the ones most determined to get others to come over to their way of thinking on all matters dietary.

Can’t we all just agree over a nice platter of chilled, shucked oysters that the fact that we can have these arguments at all means we are sitting in an enviable place of privilege? Please? I’ll even throw in a glass of champagne.

Abilgail Wick’s recent piece on veganism sparked a swirl of commentary here on EcoSalon. To wear vintage leather or not? How bad, really, is that processed faux meat?

All valid questions, but I’m going to focus on the oyster question.

I’ve talked about the sustainable credentials of oysters here on EcoSalon before, and after taking another look at the existing information, I have to stand by my analysis that oysters are a terrific conscious choice.

Oysters are filter feeders, meaning they feed on algae and other plant life that is already present in the water. They don’t require inputs like other types of aquaculture or even crop farming does, making oysters a highly efficient form of food. When you look at the farming of carnivorous fish like salmon, oysters look doubly good. Farmed salmon requires more protein to produce, pound for pound, than it provides back in food, resulting in a wasteful net protein loss—indefensible in a hungry world.

Oysters, by feeding on the algae, actually filter the water in which they live. Get this: one healthy adult oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons a day. Simply by being, they can actually improve the health of the environment in which they are farmed.

According to Food & Water Watch, it is estimated that in 1870 there were enough wild oysters to filter and cleanse the entire volume of Chesapeake Bay in three days. Unfortunately, the country’s wild oyster populations have declined due to excess nutrients, chemical contaminants, sedimentation, over-harvesting, domestic sewage and disease.

It is sad to see one of the last remaining wild foods disappear, but nowhere is there credible evidence to suggest that the farming of oysters has had a deleterious effect on wild oysters. The wild oyster’s enemies are many, but farmed oysters are not among them.

If you are like many people, you might consider oysters to be one of life’s greatest pleasures. They are compact, easy to prepare, and delicious with nothing more than a squeeze of lemon, or nothing at all. And they are sexy, even notwithstanding their reputation as an aphrodisiac. Can you think of any other food that is more fun to feed by hand to a sexy companion?

They are also low in fat and sodium, high in Omega-3 fatty acids, and protein, and contain many essential vitamins and minerals, including lots of B-12.

But are they cruel? There is no evidence that bivalves feel pain, and some scientists think that oysters are closer to plants than animals. Even ethical thinker and animal rights activist Peter Singer has gone back and forth on the issue. First advocating for eating oysters, then against, and finally settling on “probably ok”.

Experts say that since pain is a physiological and emotional reaction, and oysters don’t have a central nervous system, they can’t feel pain, as we understand it. Is that enough for you to decide they are cruelty free? Maybe. It’s your choice. I don’t call myself a vegan or even a vegetarian, but I do try to be conscious of everything I eat. Oysters are certainly cruelty-free enough for me.

I might not go so far as to declare oysters a suitable choice for a vegan diet, like Christopher Cox did in a much talked about article on Slate, last year. But what business is it of mine? He’s a vegan and he’s decided he feels ok about eating oysters, who am I to say?

Wherever you come down on the oyster question, it is about conscious eating. Anyone who truly thinks about what they eat, instead of just mindlessly filling their bellies. Anyone who goes through the exercise of deciding what they are ok with, and what they aren’t, is doing the right thing as far as I’m concerned. Billions of people are not lucky enough to be able to think so hard about what they will or won’t eat. They just need to eat. So can’t we all just lay off each other?

Go forth and slurp…or not. It’s your choice.

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Image: Fotoos VanRobin





Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.